Colbert's performance quickly became an Internet and media sensation. Subsequent coverage has seen commentators debate the stand-alone humor content of Colbert's performance, the political nature of his remarks, and whether there was an intentional cover-up by the media in the reporting on the routine. Time's James Poniewozik noted that "days after Stephen Colbert performed at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, this has become the political-cultural touchstone issue of 2006—like whether you drive a hybrid or use the term 'freedom fries'." Writing six months later, New York Times columnist Frank Rich called Colbert's after-dinner speech a "cultural primary" and christened it the "defining moment" of the United States' 2006 midterm elections.
Colbert still occasionally references this performance on The Colbert Report and included the speech in the appendix of I Am America (And So Can You!).
Colbert was invited to speak at the dinner by Mark Smith, outgoing president of the White House Press Corps Association. According to a report in New York magazine, "Smith later told the Times he hadn't seen much of Colbert's work.
Colbert gave his after-dinner remarks in front of an audience that the Associated Press described as a "Who's Who of power and celebrity". More than 2,500 guests attended the event, including First Lady Laura Bush, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, AOL co-founder Steve Case, model and tennis player Anna Kournikova, and actor George Clooney. For his performance, Colbert took on the role of the character that he plays on his television show, The Colbert Report. He spoke directly to President Bush several times, satirically praising his foreign policy, lifestyle, and beliefs, and referring to his declining approval rating and popular reputation.
Many of Colbert's jokes were directed at President Bush, while other jokes lampooned the journalists and other figures present at the dinner. Although most of the speech was prepared specifically for the event, several segments were lifted, largely unchanged, from The Colbert Report, particularly from the opening "truthiness" monologue on the first episode of the show, where Colbert advocated speaking from "the gut" rather than the brain and denounced books as "all fact, no heart". Colbert framed this part of the speech as though he were agreeing with Bush's own philosophies, saying that he and Bush are "not brainiacs on the nerd patrol", thus implicitly criticizing the way Bush positions himself as an anti-intellectual.
Following this introduction to his style and general philosophy, Colbert listed a series of absurd "beliefs that I live by", such as "I believe in America. I believe it exists." He also alluded to outsourcing to China, and satirized the traditional Republican opposition to "big government" by referencing the Iraq War, saying, "I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq."
Colbert then segued into a segment poking fun at Bush's sinking approval ratings:
Following this, Colbert continued his mock defense of Bush by satirizing Bush's photo ops aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center, and in cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina:
Colbert then wrapped up the portion of his monologue specifically directed at Bush by parodying his energy policy, using Laura Bush's reading initiative as a springboard to mock-criticize books for being "elitist", and complimenting Bush for being "steady": "Events can change; this man's beliefs never will. He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday. No matter what happened Tuesday."
For the remainder of his speech, Colbert joked about a number of people in the audience, including Peter Pace, Antonin Scalia, John McCain, and Joe Wilson. During this section, he made another reference to global warming while talking about interviewing Jesse Jackson: "You can ask him anything, but he's going to say what he wants, at the pace that he wants. It's like boxing a glacier. Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is."
Colbert received a chilly reception from the audience. His jokes were often met with silence and muttering, apart from the enthusiastic laughter of a few in the audience, such as Antonin Scalia's hearty laughter as Colbert teased him. This was in stark contrast to the warm reception that Bush received at the event for his skit with impersonator Steve Bridges, which immediately preceded Colbert's monologue.
At the end of his monologue, Colbert introduced what he characterized as an audition video to become the new White House Press Secretary (Scott McClellan having recently left the position). The video spliced clips of difficult questions from the White House press corps with responses from Colbert as Press Secretary. Colbert's podium included controls marked "eject", "Gannon" (a reference to erstwhile White House reporter Jeff Gannon, who once asked Bush a question that some in the press corps considered "so friendly it might have been planted), and "volume", which he used to silence a critical question by David Gregory.
The video continued with Colbert fleeing the briefing room and the White House, only to be pursued by Helen Thomas, who has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration. The footage of Thomas' pursuit of Colbert is not spliced, as Thomas had agreed to participate in the video. At one point, Colbert picks up an emergency phone and explains that Thomas "won't stop asking why we invaded Iraq". The dispatcher responds with, "Hey, why did we invade Iraq?" The entire second half of the video is a spoof of horror film clichés, particularly the film Westworld, with melodramatic music accompanying Thomas's slow, unwavering pursuit of Colbert, and Colbert loudly screaming "No!" at various intervals. Heavily distributed online, a portion of the mock audition tape later aired on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central on May 2, 2006.
Several of Bush's aides and supporters walked out during Colbert's speech, and one former aide commented that the President had "that look that he's ready to blow". Although President Bush shook Colbert's hand after his presentation, Colbert received an icy response from First Lady Laura Bush.
Cable channel C-SPAN broadcast the White House Correspondents Dinner live on Saturday, April 29, 2006, and rebroadcast the event several times in the next 24 hours. C-SPAN also aired a segment that included the guests arriving, followed by Bush's skit, that excluded Colbert. The trade journal Editor and Publisher was the first news outlet to report in detail on Colbert's performance, which it called a "blistering comedy 'tribute that "left George and Laura Bush unsmiling at its close" and "quite a few sitting near him looked a little uncomfortable at times, perhaps feeling the material was a little too biting—or too much speaking 'truthiness' to power".
On the May 1, 2006 episode of The Daily Show, on which Colbert was previously a correspondent, host Jon Stewart called Colbert's performance "balls-alicious" and stated, "We've never been prouder of him, but holy shit!"
The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune both covered the dinner, but neither contained coverage of Colbert's comic tribute. The wire services Reuters and the Associated Press both set aside three paragraphs to cover Colbert's routine in their articles on the event, and The Washington Post mentioned Colbert several times throughout its article. The most extensive print coverage came from USA Today, which dedicated more space to Colbert's performance than to President Bush's skit. Videos on the Web sites of CNN and Fox News had clips of the Presidential comic routine, but no footage of Colbert's satirical performance. On their morning shows, the Monday after the event, the three major networks and CNN's American Morning played clips of Bush's routine, but did not include footage from Colbert's portion of the event. The day after the dinner, Howard Kurtz played clips of Colbert's performance on his CNN show Reliable Sources. On the Fox News show Fox & Friends, the hosts mentioned Colbert's performance, criticizing him as going "over the line". Tucker Carlson, a frequent target of The Colbert Report before and after the event, further criticized Colbert as being "unfunny" on his MSNBC show Tucker.
Much of the initial coverage of the Correspondents Dinner contrasted the audience's very positive reaction to President Bush's comedy routine with actor Steve Bridges ("The president killed. He's a tough act to follow—at all times", said Colbert.) with Colbert's remarks, which received a far more muted response. On his show, Colbert joked that the unenthusiastic reception was actually "very respectful silence" and added that the crowd "practically carried me out on their shoulders" even though he was not ready to leave.
Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, said that Colbert "bombed badly", and BET founder Bob Johnson remarked, "It was an insider crowd, as insider a crowd as you'll ever have, and [Colbert] didn't do the insider jokes." Congressional Quarterly columnist and CBS commentator Craig Crawford found Colbert's performance hilarious, but observed that "only a handful of folks at the tables around me were visibly amused". Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik thought that Colbert's critics missed the point: "Colbert wasn't playing to the room, I suspect, but to the wide audience of people who would later watch on the Internet. If anything, he was playing against the room." Poniewozik called the pained, uncomfortable reaction of the audience to Colbert's jokes "the money shots. They were the whole point."
Even though Colbert's performance "landed with a thud" among the live audience, a clip of Colbert at the dinner became an overnight sensation, turning into a viral video that spread across numerous Web sites in various forms, with the sites that offered the video seeing massive increases in their traffic.
According to CNET's News.com site, Colbert's speech became "one of the Internet's hottest acts", and searches for Colbert on Yahoo! were up 5,625%. During the days after the speech, Google saw twice as many searches for "C-SPAN" (the television network that broadcast the event)—an uncommon occurrence—as well as a surge in Colbert-related searches. The blog Crooks and Liars, one of the first places to host the video, not only recorded their busiest day on record, but Nielsen BuzzMetrics ranked their post of the video clip as the second most popular blog post for all of 2006. Clips of Colbert's comic tribute also climbed to the #1, #2, and #3 spots atop YouTube's "Most Viewed" video list. Before YouTube took down the video under pressure from C-SPAN, the various clips of Colbert's speech had been viewed 2.7 million times in less than 48 hours. In an unprecedented move for the network, C-SPAN demanded that YouTube and iFilm remove unauthorized copies of the video from their sites. Google Video subsequently purchased the exclusive rights to retransmit the video and it remained at or near the top of Google's most popular videos for the next two weeks.
Both Editor and Publisher and Salon, which published extensive and early coverage of the Colbert speech, drew record and near-record numbers of viewers to their Web sites. 70,000 articles were posted to blogs about Colbert's roast of Bush on the Thursday after the event, the most of any topic, and "Colbert" remained the top search term at Technorati for over a week. A website called , created by blogger Greg Felice, logged almost 50,000 "Thank Yous" within its first five days of existence. Chicago Sun-Times TV Critic Doug Elfman credited the Internet with promoting an event that would have otherwise been overlooked, stating that "Internet stables for liberals, like the behemoth dailykos.com, began rumbling as soon as the correspondents' dinner was reported in the mainstream press, with scant word of Colbert's combustive address."
Three weeks after the dinner, audio of Colbert's performance went on sale at the iTunes Music Store and became the #1 album purchased, outselling new releases by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Paul Simon. The CEO of Audible.com, which provided the recording sold at iTunes, explained its success by saying, "you had to not be there to get it." It continued to be a top download at iTunes for the next five months and remains a top-selling audiobook on the service.
Among some commentators, the popularity of Colbert's dinner speech was mixed with indignation at the press corps for, as they saw it, snubbing Colbert even though he was the featured entertainer for the evening. The Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin called it "The Colbert Blackout" and lambasted the traditional media for ignoring Colbert and instead focusing on the "much safer" routine where President Bush was joined onstage by a Bush impersonator. Media Matters was especially critical of television news. They reported that ABC's This Week, NBC's Sunday Today, the NBC Nightly News, the morning shows of the three major networks, and CNN's American Morning all focused on Bush's skit and "ignored Colbert entirely". Media Matters also contrasted various news outlets' failure to cover Colbert to the extensive coverage that Don Imus drew for his controversial insults at Bill Clinton at the 1996 Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Todd Gitlin remarked, "It's too hot to handle. [Colbert] was scathing toward Bush and it was absolutely devastating. [The mainstream media doesn't] know how to handle such a pointed and aggressive criticism." American investigative journalist Robert Parry conjectured that Washington journalists felt pressure from both the White House and "right-wing media attack groups" to rein in their reactions to Colbert's material, as well as their coverage of it the next day.
However, others saw no intentional snub of Colbert by the press. Responding to a question about why The Washington Post's article about the dinner "did not convey with any specificity what Colbert had to say", Media Backtalk writer Howard Kurtz responded, "The problem in part is one of deadline. The presses were already rolling by the time Colbert came on at 10:30, so the story had to be largely written by then. Asked why television news favored Bush's performance over Colbert's, Elizabeth Fishman, an assistant dean at the Columbia School of Journalism and a former 60 Minutes producer, told MTV that the "quick hit" for television news shows would have been to use footage of Bush standing beside his impersonator. "It's an easier set up for visual effect", she noted. Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents' Association (which hosted the dinner) and political editor of C-SPAN (which broadcasted the dinner), scoffed at the whole idea of the press intentionally ignoring Colbert: "Bush hit such a home run with Steve Bridges that he got all of the coverage. I think that exceeded expectations. There was no right-wing conspiracy or left-wing conspiracy. Time columnist Ana Marie Cox called the allegations of a deliberate media blackout a "fake controversy" because Colbert's performance got coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the major wire services. Fellow commentator Kurtz concurred, noting that not only was the video carried on C-SPAN and freely available online but, also, he himself had played two clips on his own CNN show, "so apparently I didn't get the memo.
On May 3, 2006, The New York Times published an article addressing the controversy. The paper acknowledged that some had "chided the so-called mainstream media, including The Times, which ignored Mr. Colbert's remarks while writing about [Bush's] opening act." The Times then quoted several passages of Colbert's more substantial criticism of the president and covered various reactions to the event. On May 15, The Times' Public Editor, Byron Calame, wrote on his blog that more than two hundred readers had written to complain about the exclusion of any mention of Colbert from the initial, lengthy article covering the dinner. Calame quoted The New York Times' deputy bureau chief in Washington, who said that a mention of Colbert in the first article could not have been long enough to do his routine justice, but also that the paper should have printed a distinct in-depth article on Colbert at the same time, rather than days after the fact.
Colbert's performance found a wide variation of positive and negative reactions from the media. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News Online columnist Heather Mallick wrote, "Colbert had the wit and raw courage to do to Bush what Mark Antony did to Brutus, murderer of Caesar. As the American media has self-destructed, it takes Colbert to damn Bush with devastatingly ironic praise. Left-wing radio host and comedian Al Franken, who performed at the dinner twice during the Bill Clinton administration, said, "I thought that what Stephen did was very admirable." In its year-end issue, New York magazine designated Colbert's performance as one of the most "brilliant" moments of 2006.
However, the Washington press corps felt that Colbert had bombed. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen found that Colbert's jokes were "lame and insulting and wrote that Colbert was "rude" and a "bully". Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer felt that Colbert "crossed the line". Hoyer told the newspaper The Hill, "[Bush] is the President of the United States, and he deserves some respect. Right-wing pundit Mary Matalin called Colbert's performance a "predictable, Bush-bashing kind of humor". Ana Marie Cox chastised those who praised Colbert as a hero: "I somehow doubt that Bush has never heard these criticisms before." She added, "Comedy can have a political point but it is not political action."
On his television program, Jon Stewart remarked, tongue in cheek, "apparently [Colbert] was under the impression that they'd hired him to do what he does every night on television." Attorney and columnist Julie Hilden concluded that Colbert's "vituperative parody" might have been unfair under different circumstances, but that Bush's record of controlling potential criticism created a heightened justification for others to criticize him when they could get the chance.
Media Matters and Editor & Publisher came to Colbert's defense, calling his critics hypocrites. They contrasted the critical reaction to Colbert to the praise that many in the press had for a controversial routine that Bush performed at a similar media dinner in 2004, where Bush was shown looking for WMDs in the Oval Office and joking, "Those weapons of mass destruction must be somewhere!" and "Nope, no weapons over there!"
The New York Times published five letters to the editor on Colbert's performance in its May 3 and May 4 editions—all of which were strongly supportive of Colbert, and some of which were critical of The New York Times for reporting only critical reactions.
Arianna Huffington reported that Colbert told her he had "strenuously avoided reading anything about his appearance", and personally remained unaware of public reactions to it. Colbert's wife, Evelyn, said she was considering tracking down and saving references from publications and blogs so that Colbert could read something about the public reaction if he chose to at a later time.
Stephen Colbert won an award at VH1's "Big in '06" Awards. During the footage of comedians commenting on Colbert's success, they showed a clip from his 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner speech.
On June 13, 2007 he was presented with a Spike TV Guys' Choice Award for "Gutsiest Move". He accepted the award over video conference.